Amid the bustle of the current tourism boom, it's easy to forget that it was a different scene a generation ago during Cuba’s “Special Period,” following the collapse of the former Soviet Union and an end to subsidies.
In the 1990s, bicycles imported from China were ubiquitous on Havana’s streets, cars few and far between. Gas stations were closed, the infrequent public buses dangerously overcrowded, most storefronts shuttered.
But in that quieter city, gardens sprung up on vacant lots, corn growing between apartment blocs. In rural agriculture, there was a push for organic methods, in the absence of fertilizers.
“After the Special Period, some models did not survive, like the bicycle,” said Gina Rey, an urban planning specialist at the capital’s San Gerónimo University. “Others have been maintained, such as the urban gardens that are now part of the national program of Urban Agriculture, which has continued its growth and development in a sustainable manner. In Havana, the results have been good, and this can continue improving at the community level, with an ever more participatory process in the city’s neighborhoods.”
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Havana’s informal family gardens have also “increased a lot, and are cultivating medicinal plants and condiments for the kitchen,” Rey said.
Gentrification has threatened community gardens in many American cities, and something akin to gentrification is already seen in Old Havana. Here, the tourist economy booms; trendy shops, bars and galleries proliferate. Much foreign capital is involved — mostly European and Canadian.
The Manzana de Gómez, a century-old building on the western border of Old Havana, symbolizes the changes. Built as a commercial center for the island’s elite during the sugar boom, it was turned into classrooms after the Revolution, then mostly abandoned in the Special Period.
It recently reopened as the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski with Cuba’s first luxury mall, displaying Bulgari watches and French fragrances, on the ground floor. Investment comes from the business arm of Cuba’s military, that institution most associated with the Revolution.
But walk two blocks west into Central Havana, and the quasi-gentrification ends.
In the working-class barrios of Central Havana, residents live in what would be considered slum conditions in the United States — deteriorating buildings, overcrowded apartments, the occasional rubble-filled lot.
Meanwhile, the urban farms can be found in the greener, more spread-out districts such as Vedado, to the west of Central Havana.
Here, just blocks away from the iconic Plaza of the Revolution, big lots are planted with rows of spinach, lettuce, chives, celery, parsley, cauliflower. Workers till the ground behind fences intertwined with fruit-bearing vines.
These farms began spontaneously, yet often under direction of bureaucrats in the government office buildings — to feed their employees during the Special Period.
There are four members of Organopónico Plaza collective, and their salary depends on yield — often still purchased by government offices to feed employees. Salaries are supplemented by sales of produce to local residents from the stall at the farm’s entrance and to similar private stands around the city.
Jorge Albertini, director of Organopónico Plaza, quit his job as a police officer to oversee the farm when it was formalized. “I like this better,” he said, smiling.
The organopónicos, all on state lands that were vacant at the time of the Special Period, are organized as Unidades Empresariales de Base — Community Business Units — overseen by Havana’s Empresa Agropecuaria Metro, or Metropolitan Agriculture Company. These are a form of the Basic Cooperative Production Units, or UBPCs, established by decree of the Council of Ministers in 1993.
Decree Law 142 ushered in what some consider Cuba’s “third agrarian reform” — after those decreed in 1959 and 1963. Many of the big state farms in the countryside were broken up into UBPCs, and this model also incorporated the urban farms that sprang up in the cities. By the mid ‘90s, there were some 3,000 UBPCs across the country.
In this same thrust of reform, the Mercados Agropecuarias Libres — Free Agricultural Markets — were established in 1994. This allowed residents to buy local produce from private stands, outside the official system of distribution and rationing, known as Acopio (Spanish for “gathering”). The fruits of organopónicos can be seen on street-side stands throughout Central Havana.
Isbel Díaz Torres, of the independent Cuban Critical Observatory, a citizen’s intiative organization, said that contrary to official claims, gardens that have not been brought into the official organopónico program are being abandoned around the city.
“The perspective of growing your own food on plots proved temporary,” he said, “now that we have oil and chemicals again,” supplied primarily by Venezuela.
While organics have a niche in the cities, in the countryside the agro-industrial model has recovered with the economy, Díaz said. He points to growing areas under control of military-owned CubaSoy, using GMO seeds to produce soy for animal feed.
“In the ‘90s, there was a diversification of crops and a move to organic methods, because it became necessary,” Díaz said. “Today, experts are going to seminars around the world to talk about this, while Cuba is moving away from this model.”
Still, there are rural areas where organic methods have taken root.
One notable areas is Viñales, a town in the Sierra de los Órganos of Pinar del Río province, where an eco-tourism economy is booming.
Pinar del Río , which is west of Havana, was singled out for experiments in self-sufficient agriculture in the 1990s, and this has served Viñales well. One of the biggest tourist draws is the Finca Agro-Ecológica El Paraíso (Paradise Agro-Ecological Farm). Busloads of tourists arrive daily for a multi-course lunch of greens, tubers and legumes — all organic, all grown on the Finca — followed by a tour of the vegetable beds and fruit trees.
“Organic agriculture began here in the Special Period, and it has been expanding little by little since then,” says Finca owner Wilfredo García Correa. “The Special Period provided the impetus, but we came to realize the benefits. Every year more campesinos in Viñales go organic.”